Introducing the authors: Karen Burnham

Source: NASA

I never expected any real rocket scientists to submit to Rocket Science. But they did. Even better, their submissions were more than good enough for me to buy for the anthology. Karen Burnham is a real rocket scientist and her ‘The Complexity of the Humble Spacesuit’ also covered a subject which interests me a great deal. (I can confirm that Nicholas de Monchaux’s Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, which she mentions below, is very good.)

My name is Karen Burnham, and I work for NASA – and I almost can’t believe I get to say that. Up until a few months ago I was able to say “I work on pyrotechnics for NASA”, and that was just mind-boggling. Now I say: “I work on electromagnetic interference and lightning for NASA” which is a little less punchy, but I’m actually enjoying it even more – I’m doing more hands-on engineering in this new group.

I didn’t plan my career to end up here; actually, my career has been entirely resistant to the notion of ‘plans’. Originally I planned to be an astronomer. I majored in physics and astronomy at Northern Arizona University, a wonderful place with very dedicated teachers. Then I realized that jobs in astronomy are few and far between, and decided to go straight physics. After college I spent six years working on various radar projects, none of which really went anywhere – very discouraging.

I knew I wanted a change, and I figured that getting a graduate degree would be a good place to start. My poor partner put up with two solid years of me see-sawing between going back for a Masters in Physics vs switching fields to Electrical Engineering. In the end, the deciding factor was my incompatibility with quantum mechanics, and I went for the more ‘practical’ degree. I’m so glad I did! In EE grad school, I focused on signal processing and pattern recognition, but also took classes in neuroscience, antennas, project management, and transmission lines. Most of them were fascinating. And it turned out that a guy I worked with in the project management class thought of me when he heard that his division was hiring, that the hiring manager was looking for a physics/EE combo because he was hoping to develop an EMI specialist, and that EMI specialists need to know a lot about antennas and transmission lines. Now, looking back on things, I can draw a clear path from physics –> radars –> EE –> transmission lines –> firing lines for pyrotechnics –> EMI/Lightning specialist. It all makes sense! Except that it was as much a series of wonderful coincidences as a coherent plan.

I was very happy to be included in Ian’s Rocket Science anthology. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in my three years (so far) at NASA, it’s that everything is harder than you think it is. That includes mission design, vehicle design, orbital mechanics, environmental concerns, astronaut biology and psychology, project management, political concerns – everything. There’s a joke that NASA stands for Never A Simple Answer, but it’s the real world that’s terribly complex and complicated. I wanted to pick an aspect of spaceflight that illustrated some of the difficulties that don’t usually show up in science fiction stories. Spacesuits seemed the perfect vehicle – they’re ubiquitous in space-oriented sf, but in real life engineering a spacesuit that is maneuverable, protective, and comfortable is damnably difficult – and I’m afraid that over the years comfort has been most often sacrificed.

In my essay for Rocket Science I leaned heavily on the accounts of Mary Roach in her fabulous book Packing for Mars, which also delves into some of the behind-the-scenes difficulties that make life so hard for NASA and our international partners. (All of Roach’s books are phenomenal, by the way, and you should go and read all of them.) I also worked off the accounts of Flight Directors Gene Krantz and Chris Kraft. One book that I wasn’t able to get a copy of before the essay was due was Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo by Nicholas de Monchaux. Again, the history of this kind of purely engineering project is more quirky and human than you’d ever expect, as ladies undergarment manufacturer Playtex won the bid to make the Apollo spacesuits, beating out established engineering firms such as Hamilton-Sundstrand. You can learn more from this fascinating review in the LA Review of Books.

Technology is so ubiquitous (and so often annoying) that it can be hard to remember that behind each bit of tech is an engineer, and more likely a team of engineers. Engineers are people with all of people’s quirks and failings, so all engineering stories are human stories. When looking to illustrate the complexities of spaceflight, I couldn’t think of a better example of the human/engineering interface than the ‘simple’ spacesuit. I hope that the brief overview I give in the essay gives the reader a little more to think about when we ask questions like ‘Why aren’t we on Mars yet?’


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